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The Way We Talk: Professionalism

Published:  July 16, 2013
The Way We Talk

This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on terminology pervading today’s polarizing debates about American education. In each post, we’ll ask how various buzzwords—“professionalism,” “accountability,” and the like—influence the conversations we have. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that come with framing our arguments in each of these terms? The hope is that assessing the implications of the way we talk will prompt more productive discussions about improving PreK-12 education.


In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Harvard Education Professor Jal Mehta argues that recent attempts at education reform have failed because they emphasize “teacher accountability” instead of “teacher professionalism.” He says that the reformers’ laudable goal—“consistent, high-level performance across the school system”—is stymied by inadequate attention to systemic obstacles. Mehta warns that test-based school accountability provisions and teacher performance pay destroy morale. In addition, they can polarize discussions of the potential and limits of teachers’ influence on their students’ academic outcomes. Mehta argues that reformers’ focus on accountability comes “at the expense of progress on” other elements of teaching as a “professional field.”

If this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Union leaders and others upset by the pace, scope, and substance of current trends in education reform have made “professionalism” into a rallying cry. For instance, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, has argued that we should hold off on accountability reforms and prioritize investments in the teaching profession, such as: “the curriculum they need to teach the standards and...and ongoing support, professional development and feedback so that they can continually improve.” And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has pushed for a “national bar exam” that would raise credentialing standards for teachers.

Is this way of talking about improving the education system coherent? Is it comprehensive? What are the advantages and drawbacks of thinking about education in terms of increased professionalism? Mehta’s essay provides a good backdrop for assessing the “professionalizing teachers” approach to improving education.

Those who prioritize professionalism argue that it provides a more productive, less polarizing way to improve classroom instruction. Instead of haggling over how to evaluate current teachers, these reformers focus on blocking pipelines that produce poorly-trained teachers. This makes sense; many American teacher training programs need drastic improvement (see the National Council on Teacher Quality’s review of American teacher training programs and Delaware Governor Jack Markell’s recent legislative push in his state).

Mehta argues for setting a high bar for entry into the teaching profession—perhaps even Weingarten’s “teacher bar exam.” This might, he hopes, be a politically palatable way of squeezing “lower-quality providers” out of the market:

The training programs whose graduates passed this comprehensive exam would attract more applicants, whereas those whose students did not would become irrelevant.

It’s worth noting that the key mechanism here resembles the core of the accountability agenda that Mehta criticizes in his piece. Like market-based reformers who believe that school choice brings competitive pressures to bear on poorly run schools, Mehta argues that prospective teachers will abandon teacher training programs unable to prepare graduates to pass the “bar.” Tougher entry standards will force teacher education programs to put up—or shut down.

In other words, teacher professionalization via higher entry standards doesn’t necessarily mean a retreat from accountability. It simply shifts the accountability focus from individual teachers to teacher training programs. Mehta believes that it would be an easier political sell, given the decentralized nature of the American education system—and he’s probably right.

But quality training is just professionalism’s first hurdle. It’s not enough to simply raise the barrier for taking over a classroom. If we’re going to treat teachers like other professionals—doctors, lawyers, pilots, etc—we need to observe and evaluate their practice once they’re on the job. Mehta goes into some detail on this point:

Under [recent union] proposals, prospective teachers would start out with provisional status for their first several years. Before becoming fully licensed, they would need to demonstrate their knowledge of their subjects and their skill in the classroom. Tenure would no longer be an expected and near-immediate step but would become an accomplishment similar to getting tenure at a university or making partner at a law firm.

As usual, the devil is in the details. As described here, the “provisional status” model sounds a great deal like the tenure system in most American districts (most states hire teachers for a “probationary period” before awarding tenure). Mehta never explains how (bar-certified) provisional teachers would “demonstrate their knowledge of their subjects and their skill in the classroom,” which makes it hard to distinguish from existing processes for obtaining tenure.

If, however, a revamped tenure model made it easier to dismiss young teachers, it could have a series of fortuitous consequences [italics mine]:

These changes have the potential to remake the whole field: if it became harder to become a teacher, respect for the profession would grow, and schools might start to show better results. This process could boost public confidence in schools, potentially leading to higher teachers' pay and, in the long run, a greater desire by talented people to join the profession.

This train of syllogisms is fuzzy. After all, polls consistently show high levels of respect for American teachers. A 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Americans “have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools”—a number that has remained steady for the last three years.

What’s more, it’s equally unclear that public confidence leads to higher pay for public employees. While Americans have high confidence in and respect for members of the U.S. military, compensation for servicewomen and men remains modest at best.

Would tough entry standards for the profession lead to even greater respect for teachers? How much more would American “respect for the profession” and “public confidence” need to rise to trigger the benefits that Mehta associates with increased professionalization?

The biggest weakness for professionalism advocates, however, is that they don’t often engage with the current crop of teachers. Everyone is eager to raise the quality of new teachers—but the truly bedeviling debates stem from other questions: What do we do with today’s low-performing tenured teachers? How can we ensure that all of today’s students get an excellent education from pre-K until college and beyond? These are inescapable questions—and the answers have enormous consequences for students right now.

While it’s critical that we prepare a higher-quality teacher corps for the future, we shouldn’t pretend that the professionalism approach also addresses our present needs. That’s why, in my next post, I’ll examine the strengths and weaknesses of prioritizing accountability in education reform. 

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